Religious schools that don’t embrace the new federal guidelines on gender identity and sexual orientation may still receive federal meal funding, the Agriculture Department said.
Under Title IX, schools that receive federal dollars to pay for meals through the Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program may not discriminate on the basis of sex. In May, however, the Department announced that it has adopted a new definition of the term “sex” to cover gender identity and sexual orientation.
Although Title IX includes a religious exemption, the reinterpretation of the federal law has raised concerns among religious schools that enforce sex-specific dress codes, maintain sex-separated restrooms or sports teams, or prohibit using pronouns that don’t match someone’s biological sex.
In a Q&A document (pdf) released on Aug. 12, the Agriculture Department reassured religious schools that the changes don’t apply to them.
“[Title IX] includes some exceptions, including one permitting an institution to be exempt on religious grounds if there is a conflict between Title IX and a school’s governing religious tenets,” the Department says, adding that a school doesn’t have to file a written request in order to claim that exemption.
Over the past months, schools have been left uncertain whether they would lose federally-funded meals because of policies reflecting their religious views, especially after an agriculture commissioner tried to block a Florida Christian school from receiving the federal lunch money.
The dispute involved Grant Park Christian Academy, a preK-8 school that relies on the national program to serve meals to students from low-income neighborhoods in Tempa, Florida. In July, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried told the school that it “must comply with all federal regulations” in order to stay eligible, even if that would violate its religious beliefs.
The Academy, represented by conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, sued Fried and the Biden administration to secure the meal funding. In the complaint (pdf), the school alleged that it would “suffer harms to its educational mission, free speech, and religious exercise” by complying with the new school lunch mandate.
“In short, the Biden Administration and Commissioner Fried’s push to redefine sex in federal law has now reached the point where they will deny school lunches to underprivileged students, just because their school will not violate their religious beliefs,” the complaint reads.
Days after the lawsuit was filed, the Agriculture Department approved the school’s request for religious exemption, allowing it to continue to participate in the lunch program.
Meanwhile, the Education Department in June released a set of proposed changes to Title IX regulations. In part, the proposal broadens the definition of “sex” and seeks to establish that failing to accommodate someone’s preferred gender identity in school activities or spaces is harmful enough to constitute a Title IX violation. The 60-day public comment period for the proposal ends on Sept. 12.